Blogging Towards Sunday February 12th
After several striking demonstrations of miraculous healing power in the Jewish west bank of the Sea of Galilee, Mark turns to a narrative of an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees and the Scribes. Today’s sections contain 5 teachings all organized around a common theme of ritual purity. They start in 7:1, 7:9; 7:14, 7:17, and 7:20. We divide them up in a literary fashion because of the change of location, or the use of transitional words such as “and he said….”; or “Again Jesus….”
Before we study the text we need some historical reminders of things that we may have forgotten or never known. In Jesus’ day there were several principal sects (or denominations or schools of thoughts) among the Jewish believers: the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Zealots (or Siccari).
The Pharisees were focused primarily upon following in the most accurate way possible the depth and width of the Jewish laws. We might call them fundamentalists in our current language. The word “Pharisee” most likely comes from a Hebrew word which means “separated one”. While they were most likely the group that worked the closest with the 99% of Jesus’ day, they also were radical in their following of the Law, to the point that they would separate themselves from all people, places and situations which may lead them to break an Mosaic Law, whether by intention or unconsciously. While the gospels always lift up the opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees, the latter were probably the closest to what Jesus taught and thought. They were most likely laymen, who probably worked six days a week at other jobs.
The Scribes were people who knew letters and who could write (their name comes from the Greek for such a literate person). Often the scribes are also called “lawyers” in our NT translations. The Scribes were most likely all Levite or priests. They had the task of interpreting the law, in particular after the postexilic times when the Jews returned to Israel after having been deported to far away, foreign Babylon. Unlike the Pharisees, they didn’t have to have other jobs as they were full-time religious leaders.
Both of them focused upon the Law and how we interpret it, live it and obey it. Curiously when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, the Pharisees were the lone sect to survive, eventually becoming the rabbinical Judaism that we know today. Foreign to us, faith was lived out in Jesus’ day by following the Law, keeping the 10 commandments and also by being ritual pure (or set-apart from the unrighteousness of the gentiles) by not eating pork, wearing garments of more than 2 fabrics, etc. Read Deuteronomy and Leviticus for the full extent of the more than 400 laws that they observed.
Purity isn’t necessarily the first thing that we focus on when we come to church or think about faith. We worry about washing our hands before we eat, or after we get off BART or AC Transit all in order to be clean, and stay healthy. Ritual purity has a similar beginning point, even if it works out differently than we practice today because of our cultural context as well as because as followers of Jesus we no longer feel obligated to follow the intricate purity laws and detailed prescriptions detailed in the First Commandment.
Seeing the lack of ritual hygiene in his disciples, the Pharisees ask Jesus about his seemingly indifference and rejection of the diverse purity traditions of those that have gone before them in the faith. The underlying conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is in regards to tradition and how does one most faithfully and obediently live out faith in the God of Abraham, Moses, Myriam and Ruth? How much interpretation and contextualization is allowed? In other words, how much of what we’ve traditionally affirmed can be re-interpreted in light of what we know now, as opposed to then?
Jesus takes the Scribes and Pharisees head on. He calls them hypocrites, in response to their initial passive-aggressive criticism of Jesus as a hypocrite and seemingly lax, quasi-unorthodox religious progressive. What are the five arguments that Jesus gives to challenge the established way of reading and observing the Law? Is he really lax in his religiosity? How is he re-interpreting the Laws for his day and time? Why is he doing that?
In Jesus’ day unclean people were unrighteous, to be avoided and thus also unworthy of God’s love. What is Jesus saying in response to that theological affirmation? How is Jesus defining purity and righteousness, what makes someone clean: seeking after God’s heart?
Today we face the same conundrum. How do we understand, interpret and observe the teachings of Jesus and the laws of the First Testament? How do we decide what is essential, for we all fail to observe all of what Jesus taught? Who among us gives to each person that asks (Matthew 7:7-12)? Who among us never judges another person (Matthew 7:1-6), or sins with our eyes (Matthew 5:27-30)? Michael Pollan wrote a book about the modern food industry and the difficulties we face in terms of what we eat and how bad the things are that we put in our body. He calls those choices, the Omnivore’s Dilemma.
· As followers of Jesus, what Omnivore’s Dilemma do we face?
· What is essential to you in the teachings of Jesus? How do you decide? How do you follow it or live it? How is it hard for you to do so?
· What about the teachings of Jesus is attractive and pertinent to our world today?
· How do you – and we as a church – struggle with spiritual hypocrisy? And/or live authentically what we believe?
· How is God possibly inviting us to live out the teachings of Jesus as a community here at the crossroads of Berkeley, Oakland & Piedmont? Of what do we need to repent?